I grew up in Tulsa, but was raised knowing next to nothing about the Race Riot of 1921. Though I considered myself educated when I left for Northwestern University at the age of 18 in 1994, I had never taken a black history course, nor ventured over to Greenwood to hear jazz and blues. Four years later, while attending Columbia Journalism School in New York, I came home and learned about the journalist and civil rights activist Walter White. In May of 2002, just over 80 years after White investigated Tulsa—one of his last riots—I loaded up my car in Brooklyn and drove across America to trace his footsteps.
When Walter White, then 28 years old, came to Tulsa in late June of ’21, he had already experienced a lifetime of racial dilemmas, ensconced within the pigment of his skin.
“Walter White’s parents were enslaved; his parents were black. They maintained a presence in Atlanta’s black community, though they could have made a decision to pass up that hardship and pass as white,” said Kenneth Janken, author of White: The Biography of Walter F. White, Mr. NAACP. “He was not conflicted by their choice, or ultimately his. He formed a chapter of the NAACP and he chose a job investigating race riots when he could have done quite well as insurance salesman.”
The ascension of Walter Francis White from the inquisitive schoolboy who tailed his father during his afternoon postal routes, to the NAACP’s preeminent riot investigator seemed a natural one. That metamorphosis began on Sept. 22, 1906—the first day of the Atlanta Race Riot. That day was the first day White would understand that, despite his alabaster skin, he was black.
The Early Activist
Within a few hours of the appearance of the headline “Bold Negro Kisses White Girl’s Hand” on the front page of The Atlanta Evening News, mobs of angry white men assembled on corners all over Atlanta. As dusk fell on the city, White and his father heard a fierce roar erupt from the inner city. George White cloistered his young family to the rear of the house and he and Walter took their defense positions at the parlor windows. The father ordered his son not to shoot until the first white man stepped on the lawn, and once that man did, not to miss.
“In that instant, there opened up within me a great awareness,” wrote White. “I knew then who I was. I was a Negro … Yet as a boy there in the darkness amid the tightening fright, I knew the inexplicable thing—that my skin was as white as the skin of those who were coming at me.”
White never fired his gun that night, nor did he suffer the fate of many of his neighbors, but years later the effect of the Atlanta Race Riot hit him like a bullet. Fresh out of Atlanta University, and headed toward a pecuniary career as an insurance salesman at Standard Life Insurance Company, he balked and joined the NAACP as an assistant secretary at the salary of $1,200 per year. Dressed in a tailored suit and overcoat, Walter White stepped off a train onto the frigid platform of New York’s Penn station in the late afternoon of Jan. 31, 1918. However, it was not until twelve days later that White received his first taste of real life and work at the embattled civil rights organization.
A news report announced that a mob had slowly burned to death a black sharecropper in Tennessee. Upon reading the report, White and Executive Secretary John Shillady conferred about the NAACP’s counterinsurgency. They concluded a protest letter to the Tennessee governor—the usual course of action—would gain little more than short-lived publicity. At that point, White experienced the epiphany that would launch and define his career: “I asked permission to go to the scene and make a first-hand investigation.
“I started a phase of work for the association which neither it nor I had contemplated,” wrote White.
Even after seeing his first lynching, however, White could not imagine the greater violence in store for America.
A year later, faced with staggering lynching numbers and the U.S. Congress’ refusal to pass anti-lynching legislation, the NAACP started a vigorous, nationwide anti-lynching campaign. Then the organization sent White on the trail of the riots that followed: DC, Chicago, in Elaine, Arkansas and finally, Omaha, Nebraska.
“The Chicago riot taught me that there could be as much peril in a Northern city when the mob is loose as in a Southern town such as Estill Springs (Tennessee),” White wrote of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, during which a black man took aim at him and fired.
Although he saw inequality every place he visited, White believed there was a city that held some true potential for African Americans: Tulsa.
White’s Great Last Hope
“In the early days Tulsa had been a lifeless and unimportant village of not more than five thousand people, and its Negro residents had been forced to live in what was considered the least desirable section of the village, down near the railroad,” White wrote in “I Investigate Lynchings” for American Mercury magazine. “Then oil was discovered nearby and almost overnight the village grew into a prosperous town… The Negroes prospered along with the whites and began to erect comfortable homes, business establishments, a hotel, two cinemas and other enterprises, all of these springing up in the section to which they had been relegated.”
In the middle of a societal tinderbox of jealousy over land, status and wealth, White reported, a Negro messenger boy went to deliver a package in a downtown Tulsa office building and came upon a white female elevator operator. White arrived just in time for the showdown. This is how he saw it:
A hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building … in open daylight. Without pausing to find out whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry … a mob of 100-per-cent (sic) Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.
One could travel far and find few cities where the likelihood of trouble between the races was as little thought of as in Tulsa. Her reign of terror stands as a grim reminder of the grip mob violence has on the throat of America, and the ever-present possibility of devastating race conflicts where least expected.
Despite the overt racism and unbelievable brutality White witnessed, he still held out hope for Tulsa, which he defended in The Nation: “The damage to Tulsa itself would be irreparable if the attitude of that community were the brazenly defiant one which usually marks a Southern community after a scene of such violence and lawlessness,” he wrote. “Happily, Tulsa has had remorse and is not afraid to admit it.”
I thought so as well. After all, in 1996, the State of Oklahoma put together a commission to study the Race Riot, and in 2001 it recommended the state make reparations to the 130 survivors. But ultimately, the state drew different conclusions about the riot.
“I have carefully reviewed the finding of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and, contrary to the statement in your letter, I do not believe that it assigns culpability for the riot to the state,” wrote then-Governor Frank Keating in an October 2001 letter. He further noted that a state law prohibits Oklahoma from making reparations for any past mass crime committed by its officials or on the state’s behalf.
A lawsuit filed by the late Johnnie Cochran and civil-rights lawyer, Charles Ogletree—followed by an appeal taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—couldn’t right the long-buried wrongs of Tulsa. No material reparation was ever made.
Ultimately, White moved on from riot investigator and so did I, leaving my book and film about him and the riots he investigated on a folder that lingers on my desktop. White, however, rose through the ranks of the NAACP to become the executive secretary and then faded into obscurity, due to the changing times, his team of rivals at the NAACP and, ironically, the complexion that propelled him to the pinnacle of fame.
“White died right after his crowning achievement, just before the Montgomery bus boycott and just as the black power movement was taking hold across America,” Janken said. “The movement did not place great emphasis on the style of work White represented—integration—and did not know how to deal with his assimilation.”